After a long and eventful off-season, it is once again football time in Oklahoma as the Sooners kick off their 2019 campaign Sunday evening against Houston. Oklahoma enters the game as the nation’s fourth-ranked team and has aspirations to return to the College Football Playoff for the third time in as many years. That road begins in Norman against the Cougars.
As Stephen noted in his blog earlier this week, this year’s edition of the Sooners is led by new faces across the board. Graduate transfer, Jalen Hurts takes the reins for the Sooners’ vaunted offensive attack and is eager to silence critics who have spent the last seven months questioning his ability to make the type of throws needed for Lincoln Riley’s system.
To make his job easier, the Sooners return their dynamic duo in the backfield of Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks, who combined for just over 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2018. Hurts will also have a potent receiving core at his disposal, highlighted by junior, CeeDee Lamb who put up nearly 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, as a favorite target for Kyler Murray once Hollywood Brown was sidelined with a foot injury. The receiving corps is as deep and talented as it’s been as the Sooners added three 5-star recruits including Jadon Haselwood (Cedar Grove, GA) and Trejan Bridges (Hebron, TX), both of whom should see extended playing time all season. At tight end, Oklahoma returns Grant Calcaterra, who was named to the preseason Mackey and Biletnikoff Award watchlists back in July.
It’s not all good news for the Oklahoma offense, though. The offensive line, which won the Joe Moore Award for the nation’s best offensive line in 2018, has to replace four of five starters. The lone returner is redshirt sophomore, Creed Humphrey, who anchors the group at center. Coach Bill Bedenbaugh named Erik Swenson (LT), Marquis Hayes (LG), Tyrese Robinson (RG) and Adrian Ealy (RT) as the starters earlier this week, but the coach has been known to shuffle his rotation early in the season, so all eyes will be on this group on Sunday. It’s also worth noting that, what the line lacks in experience, it makes up for in size – they average 6’4”, 324lbs across the line which would’ve been the 5th largest group in the country last year.
With all the talent returning, and with offensive guru Riley at the helm, expectations are high for the Oklahoma offense, particularly against a Houston defense that struggled mightily last year and must replace its top performers from 2018. In addition to losing DT Ed Oliver (9th overall pick in the 2019 draft), the Cougars also must replace three starting linebackers, top three cornerbacks and its starting NB. As a result of the lack of returning production, its projected Def. S&P+ is just 118th according to SBNation.
In an effort to shake things up, the Coogs brought on new Defensive Coordinator Joe Cauthen from Arkansas State. The Red Wolves defense was known for bringing pressure with its front seven, posting the 12th best sack rate in the country last year, so expect to see some chaos from Houston’s defense early and often. This should be particularly interesting given the new look OU offensive line and a quarterback starting in a new system. Riley & Co. will have be aware of junior defensive end Isaiah Chambers, who was a 2018 Ted Hendricks (nation’s top DE) preseason watch list player, and posted 4.5 sacks last year before going down with a season ending injury against Tulsa in early October.
While the Houston defense will be a nice early season challenge for the Sooners, it feels unlikely they’ll be able to hold Oklahoma down for too long. As has become the norm in Norman, this one will come down to how the defense performs after a notably atrocious season last year (no need to beat a dead horse on this one with the stats, we all saw what happened).
For the first time in recent memory, though, there’s excitement surrounding Oklahoma’s defense as Riley hired Alex Grinch away from Ohio State to bring his patented “Speed D” to the Palace. While the Sooners have long had the athletes to be a respectable defense, a lapse in coaching, scheme and discipline during the latter stages of the Mike Stoops era made nearly every single game a shootout – fun fact for the gamblers out there, point total Overs in Oklahoma games were 11-2 last year. Free money!
Sunday’s showdown will be a great test for Grinch, as Houston boasts an explosive offensive lead by dynamic quarterback D’Eriq King. The senior quarterback was an absolute terror to opposing defenses last year, putting up 2,982 passing yards and 36 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions. He posted a full season completion percentage of 63.5% and had a QB rating of 167.0. He’s equally scary with his legs, as he added 674 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns to his resume. Oh, and by the way – he missed the last two games of the season with a knee injury which certainly prevented him from being a 4,000+ yard contributor in a single season. He is arguably the best quarterback that Oklahoma will face this season (apologies to SoonersWire USAToday writer Kegan Reneau for the Sam Ehlinger disrespect).
A majority of King’s weapons return for 2019, highlighted by receiver Marquez Stevenson, who hauled in 75 receptions for 1,019 yards and 9 touchdowns last year. The Coogs also return seniors Keith Corbin and Courtney Lark, who combined for over 1,200 yards last year as well. Houston fan sites also are bubbling with excitement over their young talent such as Jeremy Singleton and Julon Williams, who should make an appearance Sunday.
King will have help from his staff, too. As part of their off-season overhaul, Houston brought on Dana Holgorsen who is quite familiar with Oklahoma from his days at West Virginia. Holgorsen has spent the better part of his career as either and OC or HC in the Big 12. Sooner fans will likely remember and eagerly point out that Dana put up a goose egg against Oklahoma during his time as head Mountaineer, posting an 0-7 record from 2012-2018.
All in all, this is an exciting and nerve wracking opener. Sooner fans are ready for a new look defense, and this is a great early test to see how Grinch’s style will fare in the wide-open Big 12. Similarly, how will Jalen look in a spread style offense, far away from the ground and pound trenches of the SEC West? Can Bedenbaugh reload instead of rebuild? Will Oklahoma remain Dana’s biggest bugaboo?
The time for questions is finally almost over. Time to see what the Sooners can answer.